HE’S RIGHT YOU know, that Mike Keneally. That is if I treat this album title as a metaphor. It would be nice if all music was this tall. But to achieve accomplishment such as this record is a tall order beyond words.
It was more like that once though. You had to know your stuff back when guitarist Keneally was gathering much of the Frank Zappa repertoire under his fingernails before becoming Zappa band member outright. Zappa being the composer of arguably the most fiendishly difficult repertoire ever, you couldn’t be a slouch if you had designs on playing with him, and Mike Keneally came well prepared to deal with whatever intricacies Zappa’s music presented him with.
Keneally exhales music and this is demonstrated all too well on the primarily instrumental You Must Be This Tall, perhaps the pinnacle of his recorded output so far. I don’t want to use the word fusion – over the decades it’s taken on the hue of a cliché. But the sheer understanding and implementation of genres in this music is astounding. It’s often incredibly intricate but remains so easily listenable in a way that intricate music so often does not.
That could be partially explained by the way Keneally keeps you comfortable in a recognisable frame for long enough to come to grips with a musical idea but not get too used to it before he changes mood. This is in contrast to many Zappa pieces which sometimes most jarringly but purposefully could switch genres mid-stream on a dime, often moving from the most achingly beautiful moment to the ugliest piece of obscene but wordless music concrete you ever heard, depending on your taste. But that was the point. But Keneally’s elegant switches always present a new idea that sounds superior to the one that came before it. This can happen from song to song, section to section, and even moment to moment. The subtle but colourful use of instrumentation changes often but still keeps you interested and doesn’t bombard you intellectually. It’s good to your earhole.
It’s hard to select highlights. The opening title track alone is a stunner. Dating as far back as 2006 when the Netherlands’ Metropole Orchestra performed the piece with Keneally, the partially synthesiser-clad version here loses none of its impact and leaves you wondering how it could be followed. But the coda and it’s bebop fanfare from hell deliver you satisfyingly into the proud three-legged military march of ‘Cavanaugh’, the first vocal song on the record. And that vocal integrates into the mix as to be quite pleasingly unfashionable in this era of vocal volume overload where instrument tracks often seem cast off as a back-seat afterthought.
Another highlight, ‘Pitch Pipe’ moves its prog-like guitar note clusters seamlessly into what I can only describe as Spanish monks ambling through Morocco. Such is the extent of the genre layering referred to earlier – often successive but in this case also vertical.
The closer, ‘Glop’, is the most difficult listening piece. But even this has enough colour to hold the interest of someone new to this music. Then to end it goes very briefly into the most accessible 9/8 rhythm you could wish for, which in itself almost mocks the preceding demanding passage.
The audio dynamics of this recording are intact and the sound is crisp and clean with plenty of bottom end. I’d need to dig out the thesaurus to sufficiently describe the myriad of reasons why both musically and technically this album is a must-hear. But suffice it to say that from the multitude of ex-Zappa musicians, Mike Keneally is one of the few who carried on to blaze a unique musical trail even minimally comparable in scope and achievement to the lofty perch of Uncle Frank himself. In a world of land-bound cookie-cutter sound-alikes operating within a me-too culture, Mike Keneally’s music is an ocean. And it could quite possibly be the ultimate solution, if you know what I mean. PETER KEARNS
Sound = 4.5/5
Music = 4.5/5